On Sunday July 4, 2021, Rwanda again solemnly marked the 27th anniversary of the end of the genocide of Tutsis in that country. What is known today as the Rwandan genocide was the culmination of years of tension between the incumbent Hutu government and the Tutsi ethnic group. As a result of an artificial ethnic distinction by Belgium, Rwanda’s colonial master, relations between the Hutus and Tutsis had degenerated into one defined by unending violence and hatred following the so-called 1959 “Hutu revolution” during which the Tutsi ruling elite was upended and thousands of Tutsis killed with many more forced into exile in neighbouring countries.
Subsequent intermittent attempts at a negotiated or forced return of the Tutsis in the diaspora having failed to make any impact, the Tutsi military wing, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), in due course, took up the gauntlet and escalated their discontent into a full blown war in October 1990 by attacking Rwanda from neigbouring Uganda (the refuge of thousands of Tutsi for decades). The substantial territorial gains swiftly made by the RPF on the battlefield soon compelled the international community to initiate mediation between the antagonists in an effort to prevent a humanitarian disaster in the Great Lakes region. The ensuing marathon peace talks held in Tanzania, resulted in the signing of the Arusha Accords – a power-sharing agreement between Hutus and Tutsis projected to lead to a return of the Tutsis, and ultimately, peace to Rwanda.
Unfortunately, however, the implementation of the Broad Based Transitional Government (BBTG) proposed in the Arusha Accords to put an end to the conflict and foster unity between the warring parties became a problem as some powerful extremists in the Hutu government stalled and dithered endlessly at the implementation talks in Tanzania. Much to the consternation of the United Nations and the international community, the President of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, who had been active in the effort to implement the Arusha Accords, was returning from one of the meetings meant to put in place the new government when his plane was shot down by a pair of missiles as it prepared to land in Kigali by yet to be identified assailants on April 6, 1994.
Following the President’s death, Rwanda was shaken to its foundation by an orgy of violence inflicted on it by the powerful Hutu clique that had made the Arusha peace Accords unworkable. Moments after the President’s plane was brought down, as if acting out a script, roadblocks manned by militiamen appeared all over the streets of the capital city of Kigali, while soldiers of the Presidential Guards spilled out of their barracks and started a house-to-house search for Tutsis who were then summarily executed.
By the evening of April 7, the RPF, which up till then had complied with the United Nations monitored ceasefire agreement, was constrained to recommence hostilities after it failed to get the Rwandan army to stop the massacre of Tutsis. With both sides actively locked in an existential battle for the soul of Rwanda, the three-month-old civil war fought simultaneously with the genocide started in earnest. The main actors in the genocide consisted of soldiers of the Hutu-dominated national army, members of the national police force alongside the ubiquitous extremist Hutu militias, and ordinary Hutu peasants. They killed, maimed and raped their Tutsi relatives, neighbours, colleagues and friends, oftentimes adopting the most dreadful methods to achieve their objectives. The personalities who escalated the pogrom against the Tutsis included among numerous others: Colonel Theonest Bagosora, widely recognized as the mastermind of the genocide; Jean Kambanda, Prime Minister of the Interim Government; General Bizimungu, Chief of Staff of the Rwandan Army; Ministers, Provincial Governors and Mayors; and members of the militia such as Bernard Munyagishari, Omar Serushago and Yusuf Munyakazi.
When the dust of the catastrophe began to settle, following the military victory of the RPF on July 4, 1994, approximately 800,000 persons, the majority of whom were Tutsis, had been slaughtered within just 100 days. The unimaginable human tragedy also included the displacing of about two million people within Rwanda and the flight of over two million others, mostly Hutu civilians, to the neighbouring countries of Zaire, Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda.
It is instructive to point out that the Tutsis, like the Jews lost to the Holocaust, were exterminated just because they were Tutsis, and curiously, during the 100 days of the genocide in which the print and electronic media treated the world to shocking details of the massacre in newspapers and on cable TV, no serious attempts were made to stop the carnage, either by the so-called world powers or powerful individuals who were in a position to negotiate with the known masterminds.
It is therefore remarkable that despite the hard lessons thrown up by the Rwandan genocide and the subsequent prosecution and conviction of its masterminds at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Nigerian politicians and senior government officials have paid scant attention to those lessons and have rather chosen to flirt dangerously with violent templates that could potentially trigger a scenario similar to the Rwandan catastrophe.
Like Rwanda, Nigeria has had its fair share of tensions and crises, including a civil war embedding what many regard as genocide. While one may never know the outcome of the debate as to whether the killing of Igbo civilians during the civil war constitute genocide as defined in the Genocide Convention, there is substantial merit in the argument that were the events of 1966 -1970 to occur today, certain acts attributed to the government and some non-state actors at the time would qualify as genocide under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Rwanda and Nigeria seem to share apocalyptic similarities, despite the difference in size and demographic makeup. Whereas, in pre-genocide Rwanda, perennial chaos and human rights abuses of the gravest kinds had left indelible marks on all sectors of life and only required the killing of the president to ignite the genocide, in Nigeria, the obsessive nurturing of ethnicism for political and economic gains by its leaders has often snowballed into ethnic conflict and large-scale atrocities. Our ceaseless hair-raising flirtation with the cliff edge of a national implosion has often occasioned permutations by political observers that the country was heading for a cataclysmic breakup. While patriots and diehard unitarists are wont to downplay this perception as hasty and uncharitable, recent events in the country have compelled even the most zealous optimist to have a rethink.